When the Wesley College Football team takes the field for the first time on Friday, Sept. 2 under the lights, the team will be all business. Every week there is a single goal, a resounding war cry from the Wolverines: "Let's win a game!"
Head Coach Mike Drass enters his 24th season at the helm, bringing with him several returners from a 2015 roster that posted a record of 11-2, including an 8-1 mark in the New Jersey Athletic Conference. The squad was named NJAC regular season Co-Champions and earned their 11th consecutive at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, advancing to the NCAA Quarterfinals for the seventh straight season.
"We have a veteran group and we expect them to provide our team leadership," said Coach Drass, "But leadership comes from everybody who steps on the field each day at practice."
Jamar Baynard returns for his senior season to once again be the "bellcow" running back for the Wolverines. In 2015, Baynard gained 1,381 yards on the ground, averaging over five yards per carry. He also caught 68 passes for 656 yards, making him one of just three Division III players to gain more than 2,000 all-purpose yards without any punt return or kick return yardage.
Bryce Shade, Alex Kemp, and Xavier Allen are back from a wide receiving corps that combined to catch 46 touchdown passes last season. Shade led the team with a Wesley single-season record 83 receptions for 1,427 yards and 17 touchdowns. Kemp caught 44 passes for 653 yards and eight touchdowns in his freshman campaign. The first-year receiver surged in the Wolverines' playoff run, going for 17 catches, 294 yards and four touchdowns in three playoff games. Xavier Allen caught six passes for 35 yards last year but at 6-4 will likely be Wesley's largest red zone target this season.
Tory Robinson and Andrew Eagle both return at tight end. Robinson caught 12 passes for 164 yards and two touchdowns last year while Eagle saw work on special teams and in goal line packages as a blocking tight end, primarily.
Along the offensive line the Wolverines return All-Americans Austin Eagle at center and Matthew Gono at tackle. The two star linemen will be joined by a strong supporting cast as they work to sustain their success from last season. As a unit, the offensive line allowed just 17 sacks in 13 games last season.
All-NJAC defensive back Andre Connally headlines a veteran secondary for the Wolverines. The Navy and White return three of their starting cornerbacks from last season in Connally, Anthony Brinkley and DaJahn Lowery.
At linebacker, Preseason All-American Samer Manna will lead a seasoned unit. As a sophomore, he led the Wolverines in tackles with 127. Manna will be flanked by seniors Ben Robinson and Roderick Caine. Derek Lauria and Mike Sabino also saw significant action last season and will be back to add depth to what could be the Wolverines' best positional group on the defensive side of the ball.
Along the defensive front, Isaiah Ingram is the team's lone returning starter. As a sophomore, Ingram totaled 11.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks and a forced fumble. Stephen Yorkman, Nmandi Njoku, and Ray Mangold will all step into starting roles after seeing reps as backups last season.
Special Teams Returners
Senior kicker Eric Speidel is back for the Wolverines. Last season he was nearly perfect on point after attempts, going 82-for-84. He also drilled five field goals on the season. Bryce Shade will likely resume his duties as a punt returner. The senior finished ninth in the nation last season in punt return yardage, averaging 15.1 yards per return. Cappadonna Miller will likely join Shade in the back of the Wesley formation to return kickoffs.
Friday Night Lights
No. 7 Wesley will begin their season with a Friday night affair, taking on No. 25 Delaware Valley University in the team's only non-conference battle of the season. The game will be played on Bob Andrus Night, honoring the legendary Wolverines' head coach. Andrus coached the Wolverines in the 60's, 70's and 80's establishing the team as a junior college powerhouse and leading the transition to a four-year college and NCAA Division III affiliate.
The Quest for the Conference Crown
The Wolverines will be seeking the program's first automatic qualifying bid in its history as it takes on the rest of the New Jersey Athletic Conference. Wesley was named Co-Champions last year, but rival Salisbury University earned the AQ in a conference tiebreaker. Wesley earned an at-large bid and advanced further than the Sea Gulls in the NCAA Championship, but the AQ is still a sticking point for Coach Drass and the Wolverines.
"Our number one goal is to win the NJAC and go to the NCAA Playoffs for the 12th straight season," said Drass.
The Wolverines graduated the nation's best player in Division III football last season, as Gagliardi Trophy winner Joe Callahan was signed by the Green Bay Packers. Wesley will be looking toward juniors Dan Kesack and Nick Falkenberg to lead the offense this season. The pair combined for several reps last season, and will be battling for the starting quarterback role this year.
"[Offensive Coordinator Chip] Knapp has done an outstanding job over the years preparing our quarterbacks to compete on the highest level possible," said Drass of his fellow coach. Drass and Knapp have coached together on the staff for over 25 years. "No matter who is playing quarterback I know they will put our team in position to win games."
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